Excerpt for Backward by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


By Richard Dawson

This is a story of intrigue. A story of questioning the past and theorizing about the future. You may think that this story is real. You might even question whether it is piece of unrevealed history. The answer to this question remains shrouded in mystery.

This story is written under Creative Commons license. The content is free, but please use it only for your own enjoyment. Distribution without due credit is not allowed.

ISBN: 9781370765454

Image credit: January 14, 2011


The dirt walls crept inward bit by bit, a cold lifeless blanket threatening to suffocate him beneath it's oppressive weight. It wouldn't be long now before he found it impossible to move. Ritem struggled to remain calm, but staring around at bare dirt on all sides was a seeming reenactment of the horror stories of being buried alive. He wasn't exactly claustrophobic, but this pitch black trench that left barely 15 straums of movement in any direction was a bellows stoking the flames of panic.

His temporary nightmare was interrupted by a familiar voice drifting down from the surface. “Come on Ritem, that hole needs to be at least 20 straums deeper before we can put the foundation blocks in. If you want to have your own playhouse, you're gonna have to put some sweat equity into it.”

The statement needed no repeating as he'd heard as much several times already from his father. Now that the work was begun, he did have cause for celebration, and it would be a huge relief to get a respite from his sister Kaya, but the family had little currency to hire any help. Thus he was stuck digging the channel himself until it was big enough for the big gralnit blocks to be set into their subterranean channel. He endeavored to focus instead on the big picture and what a great relief it would be to command his own solitary oasis.

It took 20 more minutes of digging, before he was finally able to perceive some tangible progress. Only a couple more straums and there would be room for the next block. After that, he intended to demand a pause for nourishment despite a fatigue that was more mental then physical. This decision gave him the stamina to attack the dirt wall with renewed gusto until the spade suddenly thrust forward almost of it’s own volition. He pulled back the tool intrigued, and felt more carefully in the same spot. Something strange happened when he pushed the ground in one particular spot. The spade moved only a little way through the dirt before all resistance disappeared, as if there was nothing but empty space beyond. Putting the tool aside, he brushed at the area with his hands until a faint glow presented itself. Little by little he saw more of it. There was a strange material that looked much like the smooth clay on any house. But instead of being dark brown it was more of a whitish color, like the soat plants once they started dying back. There was a slight luster to the face which gave his pitch-black cavern a haunted ambiance.

He stared enraptured as he brushed soil away more energetically. Somehow this spot formed a barrier which defied all that his logical sense told him. It was eerie in that he could clearly see the barrier as if it were solid, but he felt no resistance at all when he tried to touch it. His fingers sought out in vain for confirmation of what his eyes described. For all the attempt, there was no conflating the visual description with the tactile one. When he pushed against the apparently solid pane, there was nothing but emptiness as far as he could reach.

Now overcome with curiosity, he carefully brushed the strange material to the extremity of it’s perimeter and eventually revealed a space a bit wider then his shoulders. But now he was struck with another conundrum. What should he do with this newfound discovery? Telling his parents would be futile, his dad be incapable of squeezing within the cavity, even if he could be convinced to try. But the more he thought about it, the more brightly his curiosity burned over what lay just beyond the boundary of his vision. Slowly and with great trepidation, he worked up enough courage to finally push his head through.

Chapter One

The first glance was utterly disappointing. The view which presented itself was of a thoroughly unremarkable room. Along each side, were stacks of drawers covering the entire wall from base to cap. The ceiling was low, less then 6 freetz high and the lighting was barely brighter then the gloomy twilight behind him. He pushed his head slightly further in hopes that he might develop a greater breadth of understanding. What he didn’t expect was the most peculiar sensation along his head and neck. He required no physical effort at all to keep his head up. The portion which passed through the barrier seemed to just merely float freely as if surrounded entirely by water. It was the strangest experience of his entire life (next to the barrier itself of course). He put his hands out in front in an attempt to learn more of this invisible supportive force. Something went wrong then, and he somehow managed to lose hold of his position. He spun wildly about and ‘fell’ all the way into the room. Of course once he came fully into the room, all notion of up or down, falling or rising became utterly nonsensical. He found that he could drift about in any direction with the slightest push on any wall. It took a few revolutions before he noticed the wall through which he’d passed. What began as mild interest quickly changed to panic as he searched first with his eyes and then with his hands over what was clearly just another row of drawers.

He was trapped! He smacked the nearest drawer and felt only solid material, so too with the one above and below. He smacked all the ones in reach and got the same result. In desperation he banged on every one that he could, desperately searching among the dozens of bins until his frantic attention was interrupted by the sound of a door opening.

“What's going on here?”

“Who in the world are you?

“What are you doing in here?”

The woman was short, barely five freetz tall and so skeletal as to barely seem alive. Her cheeks were sunken and her short hair floated lifelessly around her scalp. She had some kind of one-piece covering that looked dirty and heavily worn. She floated through the door as if she were swimming and as she closed the distance between them, he noticed the black circles around her eyes widen along with the eyes themselves.

At first he was so distracted by the gaunt face which barely hid the skull underneath that he could think of nothing to utter in response. A faint ‘um’ was all that escaped at first. “I don't know. I was just digging and somehow I found this... this, passageway I guess you'd call it.”

The woman gave him a strange unrecognizable look. “What do you mean you were digging. Are you looking for parts? Cause most of that stuff doesn't work anymore. And how come I've never seen you before? And how come you're so tall.” She said the last with the reverence he might use for a circus strongman.

He squirmed inwardly without fully understanding why. “I, I don't know. I've never seen this place before. What is all this?”

“Oh it's just a scrap parts room. Not many people ever use it now. We'll probably be shutting off the O2 in here.”

“Shutting off the O2? What do you mean?”

Somehow his comment piqued the woman’s curiosity. She drifted closer and came within a handsbreath of his face, analyzing him the way a healer might examine a rash. “My! You look so healthy and well fed.” Suddenly her brows lowered into a frown. “Have you been stealing extra food? Did your parents get past the safeguards?”

He was starting to grasp the barest hint of a what might be happening in this place. Something must have happened to these people’s food supply. “No no, I've never touched your food. My, my family grows food in the yard. We've got almost a hectare out back.”
Now her face looked almost cartoonish. “A hectare?! Come on, that's really cruel. How could you make fun like that. Geezkrishna, what kind of a monster would say such a thing!”

Her face transformed into a fierce scowl which only accentuated the skeletal lines of her face and if not for her diminutive frame, he might've expected her to throw a punch at him.

This wasn't a reaction he could've expected. He held his hands out in peace hoping to dispel the woman’s cynicism. “But honest. It's true. I just spent all day yesterday helping my dad plant Trux.”

Instead of looking at him, she put her nose close and took a sniff. He was taken aback by the gesture and would have thought it incredibly weird, except that everything about this place was equally strange. “Hmm. You don't smell... quite right. I think you better come with me. We'll talk to Jessa and see if we can figure this thing out.”

She 'swam' toward the door and it immediately opened by sliding to one side. He barely had time to register the magic of the opening before she motioned for him to follow. Once past the door they drifted into a circular tube that stretched several meters in either direction. It was also dimly lit by some strange tube which produced no heat or flicker of a flame. Like the room he'd left, this space was horribly cramped, though obviously not so much for these diminutive people. There were slender handrails on either side and he observed the woman guiding herself along these. The feeling of moving around in open air the way he would in a lake was still the most exceptional quality to this place. Following behind her, he noticed that her suit billowed out except in spots where her body touched it. Gazing up, or perhaps across at her he was again struck by the feeling that he was traveling with an animate skeleton. As they moved down the corridor, he felt a strange vibration along the hand rails. It was kind of like when a hourdz was trotting close by and the ground shook a little. But this didn't get faster or slower, it remained constant. Not really understanding any of this, he chose to ignore it and focus on the more prescient details. He followed the frail woman 'down' past two more doors until she pushed a button and drifted through the door, motioning him in as well.

He found himself in another room not much brighter then the first. It was shaped like a pie wedge and with a ceiling that was equally low. There was no visible light source that he could see, but rather the whole ceiling produced the same faint and even light. There were large counters running along the edge of the quarter-circle room with lights going randomly on and off along their surface. Facing these surfaces were a series of chairs with three frail people in them. A fourth woman was floating in the middle and looking inquisitively at them.

“Jessa, this boy was in the spare parts room, I've never seen him before but he's said some pretty strange things. I thought you might be able to help figure out what his story is all about.”

The woman Jessa was only slightly taller then the first one, her hair was short-cropped and fully gray. Her gaunt frame and sunken cheeks confirmed to him that this group of people was suffering a great calamity of malnutrition. They looked worse then Danic up the road who was always spending whatever money he earned on a bottle instead of on a meal.

“Young man, you should know that there aren't enough people on this ship for a person to live here unnoticed. So I'm going to ask you one simple question-”

He didn't even register the woman's full statement. His attention was quickly consumed by the word 'ship.'

“We're on a ship?! How is that possible?? I was digging in the ground just a few minutes ago! How could I be instantly transported to the ocean like that?”

Before the captain could answer, the other woman looked at her superior with shrugging shoulders. “See what I mean captain? I think he's nuts or something.”

The captain now drifted closer to him as well gave him the same inquisitive stare that her associate had. “You're right Nisu, he is mighty strange. And the fattest huemean I've ever seen. Boy, what section are you from. Who are your parents?” Come to think of it, I don't think we've even had any births for the past, um-” The woman's eyes looked up and then kind of glazed over. “Oh hell who remembers.”

Ritem felt like he was having some fantastic dream from which he might at any point awaken. Nothing here conformed to the logic that his mind screamed for. Starving people, the feeling of floating in a room with no water, the strange ceiling that glowed but with no obvious daylight. He just put his hands up in a gesture of peace and calmly told the adults what he could. “Ladies, I really don't know how to explain it. Only a few moments ago I was digging a foundation channel in the yard, then I came across this weird material and went through into that room.”

“Captain, what does he mean by digging? I thought he meant he was digging for parts. But I don't know what a 'foundation' is. I doubt there's one in the parts room-”

He couldn't imagine what would convince them that he wasn't crazy. “Look, I was digging in the ground, in dirt. See my hands...”

They were interrupted by one a man who turned from the counter to face them. “Captain, we've spotted another planet on the long range scope. It might be close enough to the host star to support life. Should I launch the probe?”

The woman, now distracted, looked over her shoulder at the person who had spoken. Her voice was low and disconsolate as she answered. “Oh. I don't know. It's our last shot... maybe we should get closer before we take the ris-”

But before she finished, it finally struck him. Ship, planet. “Geezkrishna!! You mean this... this place exists outside in the great ethereal above?! We're in outer space?!”

Suddenly all eyes in the room fixed him with an intense stare. He could feel every eye penetrating the layers of his body to expose his very soul. The captain immediately turned back again, drifting close and focusing him with the full intensity of her stare. “Okay, how in the world can you be on board the Faint Hope and not know that we're in the Maurit nebulae? Just where exactly did you come from?”

Confusion now dominated his mind as he looked around at the rows of cynical faces. He paused to take a gulp of air before managing some kind of response. “Well, I'm from Ulak. It's, it's not a very large town, but it's on the outskirts of Medria.” He looked around again and was met with only blank stares for his trouble. “'ve never heard of Medria? Okay, well it’s the capital of Philadrog.” Now he became even more perplexed by the utter lack of recognition. Every face held a completely blank expression, as if they were not just starving, but mute as well.

“What? Have you people never even heard of Nedune at all?!”

Now finally, a series of gasps exploded throughout the room. He heard the name repeated over and over, reverently, like a prayer. “Nedune.” “Nedune.”

“He's from Nedune?!”

The words were whispered with the same veneration he might use to describe a statue of The Eternal. He was reminded, looking into their eyes, of the expression which the girl had projected when she first commented on his size.

It took a long moment before the captain regained enough composure to speak. But finally the look of wonder disappeared to be replaced with a cynical hawk-like stare. “Nedune? Nedune?! How in the world can you be from there? We left Nedune 150 years ago! Everyone on that planet must have rotted to dust by now.”

This struck him almost like a physical blow. If not for the apparent weightlessness, he was certain that he would have collapsed.

“Dead?! Over a century ago? But that's impossible? I was standing on the soil of Nedune only an hour ago?”

His awe was broken by a whispered comment from the other woman. “Captain, I think the hunger has sent him into delusions of fantasy.”

The whole situation was too surreal, how could he confirm to these people the truth behind his own memories? “Look folks, I don't know how to convince you. Look at my hands, there's dirt on them, my clothes are dirty-”

“Hold on, one moment Geela.” The captain swung around to face him again. “What is your name son?”

“Um.” It took him a few moments before his brain could switch gears. “..well, my name is Ritem.”

“Okay Ritem. Do you know your parents names? Are they still alive?”

“What?” He couldn’t imagine such a question. “Of course they're still alive. My mom's name is Shriya and my dad is Kritar. They're farmers on the east end of Philadrog.”

The woman looked thoughtful for several minutes. “I don't remember anyone named Shriya or Kritar on the list of surviving. But then... well it's hard to remember much of anything these days.” She 'swam' back over to one of the counters and pushed several buttons. “Well, I don't understand it, there's no record of those two people and no one in the ship looks as pudgy as you. I can't imagine how someone like you could be here.”

“But look. This stuff under my nails. It's dirt. I swear!”

The other woman took hold of his hand and examined it. “Well there does seem to be some kind of dark brown stuff on his hands. It's not like anything I've seen before. It smells mighty odd.”

“Captain, we can't afford to support anyone else on this ship.”

The woman turned from him and responded with a voice bereft of vitality. “Oh Virab what difference does it make. If we survive a month or six months or even another dozen. There hasn't been a habitable planet in seven years and we're down to our last probe. There's really no use in keeping up our charade any longer is there?

The scene was so disheartening and empty of hope that he could almost predict the answer to his next question... almost. “Um, what charade do you mean?”

The captain now spun around, at last showing an emotion, this time of shock. “What charade?! Oh come now, surely you know. It's the same story we've been repeating for decades now. Some day we'll find a planet. Some day we'll be able to grow enough food to keep away the hunger. Some day we'll have something more then a shoddy daydream that we can somehow escape extinction.”

Once again he felt certain that if there had been a downward force, his legs would have dumped him to the floor. Even so, his limbs felt hollow and his eyes grew as wide as a hourdz's. “You mean... the entire race is down to just the people on this ship in space?! But how is that possible? How..” He swallowed deeply. “How many are left?”

The captain again returned her deep inquisitive stare towards him. “You... you, really don't know do you? No, I can see it on your face. This whole situation is completely unknown to you. Geezkrishna, I hate to be the one to tell you this. You seem like a nice enough kid Ritem.” She looked aside in thought for a moment before continuing “there are only about... um” The woman paused again as if searching for something in the dark “let's see Shrinar died last week, so about 85 people left.”

Ritem felt the blood drain completely from his face as his jaw hit the floor. “What in the world happened to all of you? The whole species is down to just eighty-five souls?”

The captain looked at him pityingly. Young man, generations ago, Nedune was a dying planet. Our species had destroyed it in our hubris. The lust for dinars and the processing of kowl had rendered the whole planet unlivable and there was barely enough food to keep a few hundred souls alive. There was constant fighting just to get a bit of algae each day, at least for those that saw any worth in staying alive at all. Nisu's forebears along with all of our ancestors took a last desperate gamble and launched the Faint Hope. We've been heading for...for...Geela where are we heading again?”

“Captain we're heading into the Lindra cluster.”
“Right... geezkrishna I haven't had algae in- um- I guess at least two days.”

“Captain, your our leader. You have to keep your strength.” Someone else exclaimed.

“Oh Dissur, I'm alive, what more do you want of me?”

“By all that is blessed, captain... do you think that this is the end of all Huemean's everywhere? It's so- so hard to believe.”

The woman looked exasperated. As if she was furious, but didn't have the strength left to put power behind her words. “Oh Ritem, look around you. Most of us are lucky to get one carefully measured serving of algae a day. Nobody even has hope enough to get pregnant, what do you think will happen when the last woman grows too old to give birth? Even if we found a planet... pretty soon there wont be anyone to carry on the species.

Despite the previously comfortable temperature, his arms felt cold and the air seemed to have become denser somehow.

“Geezkrishna! This is horrible. Isn't there any way to stop this?”

“Didn't you hear the captain doof! Even if we found a planet, there aren't even enough of us anymore. It's the end of all Huemean's... every damn one of us. Go tell that to all your fat-”

The captain interceded on the man's speech. “Now now Geela, I know your hungry, and we all get short-tempered when we're hungry. If you need a sedative, you're welcome to take one. The more we sleep, the less energy we'll burn and the less algae we'll need.” Slowly, she turned back to him. “Ritem, you're welcome to explore the ship here. Most of us have nothing else to do and there might be someone who'd enjoy hearing about where you came from. But there's no food here. Not much water either.”

Now the other woman looked at him with a strange new expression. Her eyes were pleading as she stared directly into his, then she turned to Jessa. “Captain, do, do you think it would be possible to follow this kid back to where he came from? I mean, if they have an acre of trux we could eat, we might have some kind of a future... my god to have real food!”

Ritem thought about what she said. Eighty-five new people. Sure they had food, but would it be enough for all of them? Then again, he couldn't refuse and let them all starve to death. He was in the middle of pondering what his parents would say at the sight of dozens of starving refugees when his thoughts were interrupted by the woman who had first spotted him.

“Captain I would like to volunteer as a scout and see if it would be possible to escape back to where this boy came from.”

Ritem saw the pleading in her eyes, as if she was begging for her very life which, he realized, she actually was.

“Please, Jessa?”

Ritem fought a war within himself. He felt it criminal not to give them at least some faint spark of hope and offer what help he could. But even if there was enough room and food, he didn't even know how he could get back. He'd tested every drawer and panel within reach and had no success whatsoever in discovering the strange passageway home. He knew that he couldn’t put this revelation off for long, but the woman's pleading eyes finally won him over for the moment and he decided to keep his peace until he could discretely search through their storage room again.

Ritem looked back at the captain and saw her deep in thought while the room itself seemed to hold it’s breath in anticipation.

“Nisu, I realize how strong the temptation is to jump at the first chance of salvation, no matter how slim. But we know nothing about this boy, or his world. We know nothing of Nedune save for the stories from our ancestors that escaped. And those were quite horrif-”
Ritem saw the woman move over to the captain and grab her by the shoulders in a mad desperation. It seemed that while these people lacked any real physical strength, they managed to put a surprising amount of energy into their words and expressions.

“By all that is Holy Jessa! Think about it, in seven generations we haven't seen one single planet that could keep us alive. I don't know where this kid came from either, but wherever it is... this has to be the best chance we have of holding onto more then just a bare starving existence!”

Ritem felt his eyes getting wet from the emotion in the woman's voice and it was clear that her pleading had made an impact on the captain as well. The woman, Jessa, put her own arms onto Nisu's and spoke in a low and very calm voice. “Alright. I'll tell you what.” She turned to one of the people at the strange counter. “Virab, how far do you estimate that planet is?”'

The man turned around and showed a serious expression. “Captain, sensors indicate that it's twenty million clicks.”

“Thank you.” She turned back to the woman in front of her and her expression softened further. “Nisu, let's give it half a day. We should be close enough to get a more accurate reading by then. If this planet looks like it could support us, then we're going to need everyone's help to get things set up on the surface. If not... well, we wont have any alternative anyway.

Chapter Two

Though he'd never met a single person here before, the whole crew of this strange ship in the heavens now treated him like an honored guest. People asked over and over for stories of what it was like to harvest food and their hungry mouths hung slack at the stories of whole fields of trux or punkrins. He told them about the weekly trips to the market where his father traded their harvest for clothing, or tools, or sometimes a few dinars.

For himself, he had thousands of questions of his own, and lots of things he didn't understand. How did all of their food run out and why did they abandon Nedune? Why was it that not a living soul on the ship had even heard of wood, or even a tree for that matter?

Through it all the thought kept nagging him in the back of his mind that if he didn't manage to find the passageway back, then these memories would be the only thing left of his comparatively blessed life back home.

The idea that he might be forced to live a short and starving existence among these people never left his thoughts for even a moment.

His thoughts were interrupted by a disembodied voice that seemed to come from somewhere up on the walls. “All senior staff. Report to the bridge.”

It sounded like the captain, and with the same beleaguered tone that he sensed in all the people that he met. He looked around at the walls, but, he could not figure how the woman's voice could be coming from several places at once when the captain was nowhere to be seen. He was still pondering this, when Nisu walked over to him, her skull-like face wearing a concerned look.

“Ritem, you might as well come along with me. If this planet is finally the one then you can go back to Nedune knowing that all of us will survive. And if not-” Her voice trailed off for several minutes as they traveled the corridor. “Then we'll have no option but to try this corridor of yours.”

Back on the bridge he saw the captain turn from the strange counter to face them. Her own face was a tortured mask of pain as she motioned Nisu towards her. The long embrace between them told Ritem that the news couldn't be at all good.

“Oh lord no!” It was less a statement then a scream, but one which spoke more of abject dispair then of anger. For himself, he was still unclear as to the reason behind it, but he expected that whatever it was, he would not like it one bit.

He looked from one to the other of them, desperately wanting to know what silent news was showing in those haunted eyes. But it was clear that this was a deeply personal time for them and so he stood aside and let them have their space. It took a long while until the hugging and tears finally subsided before the captain addressed Nisu and threw a glance at Ritem as well. “It seems that you've gotten your wish Nisu. We have no choice now but to trust our future to this boy. Both of you go and check back as quickly as you can. I don't know how long I can keep the bad news quiet. Chances are, someone will just open an airlock and put an end to all of our suffering finally.

She turned then back to Ritem. “Young man, I'm sorry that you have to witness this. If you value eating or having a life at all, I suggest you find a way to get back home. There... there's nothing left here, nothing at all.” She paused and like the other girl, looked at him with mournful eyes. “And if you do get back-” she hung her head and her voice fell to a whisper “eat a serving of Trux for me.”

“And for me.”

“And me.”

The sentiment echoed among the wide collection of

hollow eyes, the weight of their sorrow felt stronger even then the downward force back on Nedune. If this was what the future held he certainly wanted to stay as far from it as possible.

So Ritem followed the woman back through the corridor, holding the handrails as he drifted along behind. None of what happened made sense to him and as they moved through the ship he finally made an effort to tease some explanation from the woman.

“Nisu, what happened back there?”

She paused in her progress to stare back at him with a look of empty fury. “You mean you don't know?!”

He shook his head slightly before she continued. “It didn't work! Dammit! The planet is too young! There's so much lava all over and the air is full of carbon. We wont have anything to breathe down there.” The woman put her face in her hands and mumbled something that he had to ask her to repeat. “There's nothing else for us Ritem! Following you back is the only option we have to stay alive. It's... it's that or we die.”

Once again, his legs felt dead as he stared into this woman’s sunken and forlorn eyes. Clearly there was nothing for it. If dad became angry, then so be it. He couldn't let these people all die a slow and starving death out here in, some nebula or whatever.

They floated through a doorway and Ritem found himself back in the room with all the drawers. He wasted no time in once again checking all the faces of the drawers from floor to ceiling and from right to left.

He said a silent prayer as he then made for the opposite wall. Feeling the drawers, he touched over a dozen of them. Each time he struck solid metal his hopes fell one more notch. By the time he reached the 16th drawer, he wondered if he might indeed suffer the same fate as the rest of the skeletons on this ship in the heavens. He banged on the floor, on the ceiling, all to no avail.

Looking back at the girl he saw her head fall to the floor. “Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god-”

“Jeezkrishna. I'm too young to die!” He started beating on the drawers with all his strength. Soon he was leaving dents in many of them, which seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the woman. She seemed to be too bereft of any further emotion. He almost did fall on his face finally, when his fist punched straight through into empty air.

“I found it! Nisu, I found it. I found it!”

She pushed towards him, put her arms around his neck and squeezed with what must have been all of her strength.

“Oh Ritem! We're saved. We're saved! Jeezkrishna, to actually see food, and plants, and this... dirt you talk about.”

Without wasting any time, he gently guided the woman into the passageway and told her to squeeze his hand twice if she needed help.

Barely a second passed after her head disappeared before she was frantically squeezing his hand and he pulled her back. Her face was covered with dirt and her eyes were wide with terror.

“I don't believe it. After all these years, decades even of hoping and praying... we never even knew.”

With her seeming incoherence and her eyes glazed over, Ritem took a moment to carefully wipe Nisu's face and saw her eyes cloud over with an endless flow of tears.

“What is it Nisu? What is it you never knew?”
It took several moments before she managed to look up at him. “Gravity Ritem. Fluppin gravity!!! Geezkrishna we've spent our whole lives in zero-G and it never even occurred to us that we needed muscle in order to withstand the gravity. But... but there's just never been enough algae.”

She wrapped her skeletal arms around his neck one more time and her body shook with the utterly hopeless grief while he did his best to comfort her. He could think of nothing to say, and so he just continued to hold her until her crying was spent.

When finally she gazed at him again, the pleading was gone and she absentmindedly brushed the bubbles of water beneath her eyes away. “Ritem, you'd better go. There's nothing more you can do to help us, but,” here she swallowed deeply. “I appreciate that you at least tried.

“I'm sorry Nisu. I don't understand. What does gravity have to do with you coming back to Nedune?”

Now the dejection on her face finally turned to anger. “Look at me dammit! All of us here are nothing but skin and bones! Geezkrishna don't you get it? I couldn't even keep my head off the ground in there. I have no damn muscle to support my weight against gravity! Even if Jessa could find a planet for us tomorrow. We'd all be too weak to stand up on the surface!” She looked at him again and her expression softened back into the dejection he'd seen earlier. “I'm sorry Ritem. I don't want you to remember us this way. But, it's best that you go back to your home, and say a prayer of gratitude every night that you can at least have a few morsels of food to put in your stomach.”

Now his own eyes too were brimming with tears which bubbled around his eyes making it impossible to see. He gave the skeletal woman one last hug and she kissed his cheek briefly before he slowly pushed himself into the passage.

The last sound that he heard was a door opening and a sound like an incredibly strong gust of wind.

He was covered with dirt, but it didn't matter. He was home! Solid ground, his family, and food!

“Ritem, are you finished with that spot? Geezkrishna boy, we can't spend the whole week on this. I have to get back to the fields.”

It took a long moment for him to reorient himself to his old reality. The downward force, the oppressive dirt walls, and the knowledge that there would be a meal for him at the end of the day.

When he finally accepted that the long nightmare was over, his first instinct was to rush out of the hole and clutch his father in joy and relief. But then he thought about how it would sound. Secret passageways, ships in the heavens, starving huemeans, dad would think he was crazy.

“Ritem! Answer me. Are you alright down there? I thought I heard a scuffle.”

“Sorry dad. I was working on this one spot and found a big rock. I must've hit my head or something.”

Now the frustration the man’s voice was replaced with concern. “Ritem are you okay?”

He didn’t like to be deceptive and he felt guilty for the unnecessary concern. “Oh I'm fine. But I think we'll have to shift the building over two freetz. This big rock is too heavy to move.”

Sounding disappointed, the voice came back down. “Alright. Well why don't you come on up and we'll have your mom check you out. No project is worth getting banged up over.

Chapter Three

Though both his parents asked what was going on, he couldn't think of a way to answer them. For weeks afterwards, every time they had a meal he would stare speechless at his plate while thinking of Nisu and the captain, and all the other skeletal people on that ship. He couldn't stop wondering what had happened to them in that far off horrific future. The feeling of floating in the air, the algae, the search for another planet, it all made no sense to him.

He tried bringing it up with his friend Shrik a few times, but every time he tried, he found that his words mingled into incomprehension. The whole experience was just too much like a dream to him after awhile.

It took a long time, but as the weeks went by he slowly found himself dwelling less on the starving people on their strange ship and focused instead on finishing the playhouse and keeping the thirsty crops alive.

In no time it seemed, the harvest period approached and soon the family was too busy for anything but work, food, and sleep for two full moon cycles.

Chapter Four

Mom and Dad were arguing. It was happening more often these days and money was always tight. The rains hadn't been falling and the harvest was slim. They had enough, but there wasn't any extra left over to pay for repairs. It was times like this that he found solace in the old playhouse.

His small oasis provided a convenient escape into another land. These days, when there was so much tension in the air, it was his one and only respite. Ritem paused in his games for a minute and thought back again to the strange block he'd found when they were building the foundation. The ship had been so depressing, and scary too. But he realized that if they were eating some kinda algae soup then a half pound of soats would be an amazing gift for them. It was a tough decision, and he didn't know if he could find the courage to do it, but the memory of those gaunt faces just wouldn’t quite leave his consciousness.

Finally, his mind made up, he grabbed a little that would've gone to the animals and started digging next to the wall.

It was harder to find now that the memory of it’s location had disappeared into the past. He dug pilot holes in several places searching for the one spot that he remembered. He kept making small holes out from the trench until at last the peculiar white surface presented itself again. By the time he finished, he was covered in dirt and completely exhausted. He pushed against the strange surface and once again his trowel disappeared through, having no resistance at all. He brushed the dirt aside and peaked in, but there was nothing that he could see at all. It was so dark that he couldn't even tell how large the space was or if anyone was alive there. Finally with a shrug, he heaved through and this time fell ungainly to the ground. He fell on something soft that smelled horribly bad. Immediately the air was filled with the putrid smell and he spat out several times from whatever it was. He picked himself up and felt along the walls to try and get a sense of where this place was.

“Hello?” The echo told him that he was in a room not much bigger then the playhouse. Nobody answered so he decided to feel his way around for a door. He couldn't figure out why he didn't float like last time. He also noticed that it was quieter, last time there had been a strange humming sound. Here it was as quiet as the trench in which he’d been digging.

As he felt around, everything seemed to be broken. There were sharp edges and irregular lines all over. The air smelled odd and he coughed a little. It took an eternity to find another door without killing himself in the process and he almost tripped a dozen times. When finally he did find an opening, it was so small that he barely fit through and he bumped his head on the door frame. The next room had a dirt floor and once again he had to move carefully to keep from tripping over the random debris scattered haphazardly about.

Eventually he made it across to another door and reached the outside. There was a tiny flickering fire off in the distance, but everywhere else was flat black. He couldn't see the moon or stars of any kind. He tried to make it across to the flickering light, but he almost fell sprawling over something just outside the building. The air was thicker here and his chest hurt. So he decided to wait in the doorway until it was light enough to see.

His eyes drooped and he must have dozed off because when he looked up again, it felt like dawn. There was a faint light streaming through the doorway but it was just barely enough to see. He was amazed then, when he looked out and saw, not the edge of dawn, but a faint outline of sunlight far above the horizon. The sky was thick with dark black clouds and the sun was dim enough that he could look directly at it without squinting. The scene resembled what he saw just before a huge storm approached. There were precious few buildings that looked whole enough to provide shelter, and strewn all around in every direction were random piles of rubble. His chest was hurting more now and it felt like there was sandpaper in his throat.

The scene around him was scary enough that he pondered just giving up and getting back to the passage. But then he saw a man sitting up against a pile of rubble. At first he couldn't tell if the man was alive or dead. He just seemed to lay there unmoving. He was covered in rags and even the rags were caked in a black dirt that smelled of urine. His face was black and the only part of him that had any color were his half-closed eyes.

“Excuse me.”

“Oh bugger off. Leave me die in peace.”

The man was lying on a pile of moldy cushions that he couldn't imagine using for an animal. Just like the people on the ship he was barely skin and bones, with big circles around his eyes.

The whole scene was so overwhelmingly sorrowful that for a second he actually considered honoring the man’s wish. But finally his curiosity pushed him forward. “What's so bad though?”

The man laughed and a tooth flew off into the street. “What's so bad?! What's so bad?” The man's cackling went on for a long while, like some kind of lunatic. “What's so bad he says. Amazing.” The man now looked at him directly. “Have you been living under a damn rock all these years? I didn't make the cut! I didn't get ta go on the ship!”

Now the man looked at him even closer and he began to squirm a bit. “My my boy. You look positively FAT.”

“The ship? What ship?”

“What ship?” The man gave another maniacal laugh. “What ship. What ship he says.” He acted like he was talking to some other invisible person. “Like Huemeanty sends up so many spaceships that they have to have a damn serial number on them.” The man looked back at him again. “Boy, how could you not have heard of the Faint Hope? And the lottery, and the rioting?”

“Um... well honest this is the first time I've ever been here. What happened to make this place so- sooo-”
“Shitty? Really, how the hell can you be standing there and not know about Megacorp? The greedy bastards made billions of dinars and got control of the whole army, but in the end it didn't do them a lick 'o good did it.” The man swung his arm around and laughed a long bitter laugh. Nope, didn't do them but one lick 'o good. I hope they rot in hell for all the shit they did.”

He stared at the man and the horrific scene surrounding them. “But why would anyone want to do this to the land? I mean, don't they eat too?

For a second, the man looked pensive. “Well, I don't really know. The last few years some people have thought that they might just be some kinda robots. No feelings at all. Given what they've been doing it'd make sense.”

A few of them tried to bribe their way onto the ship, so at least they would have to be huemean. But eventually the folks stocking the ship wised up and killed the last coupla greedy bastards.

“But what about this ship? How can a simple ship be so important if there's no way to grow trux, or soats, or...”

Once again the man peered at him in a real uncomfortable way. “Boy, what's this you spouting about some extinct plants for. Aint nobody seen a gram o' that stuff since before I was born.”

This sounded just like the situation on the ship where he remembered the captain talking about having algae.

“Oh my god! The ship I was on...they called it the Faint Hope too. So you people also have no food?”

“My lord boy. With you lookin so fat and not knowing anything... are you from another planet or sumethin?”

“Well, it sure feels like it. The last time I traveled through this strange material and found myself on a ship, but not an ocean ship. A ship in space. There was no... no force pulling me to the floor. People swam through the ship the way we would swim in a lake. The people were all skinny and they were looking for some, uh, planet. They were talking about not having much algae.”

“Boy why don't you go spout your crazy somewhere else.”

He didn't know why, but suddenly it seemed important for him to make this person understand.

At first he couldn't think of anything that he could say though. It didn't even make sense to him. But then he remembered the handful of soats. He showed it to the man and the man's eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets.

“Oh my dear dear lord! Are those really plants?? It can't be. Nobody's seen real plants here for decades.”

It was so hard to believe all of this. He couldn't imagine what could've happened to create such a desolate scene. “Wow, you mean you folks don't have any soats at all here?”

Now, impossibly, the man's eyes actually managed to grow even wider. “Soats?! You've actually got soats? Geezkrishna I wish I could eat that. How absolutely shitty, to finally see real food again and have no teeth left to eat with. Curse it all!” He threw a stone out into the distance with a feeble limb.

Turning back again, the man looked up with a wholly different expression... it was like the reverence which the people on the ship held for him. “Just where in this universe are you from, dear boy?”

Ritem had to think for a minute. “Well....I'm from Ulak, which is near Medria. Where I live the air is clear and we grow fields of trux, soats, and punkrims. We're poor, but at least we have food to eat.”
“The man continued to stare wide-eyed. “My god, punkrims?! I've only heard about those in stories. Are they sorta...roundish with seeds in em or somethin?”

“Well, yeah. They're orange and have kind of a hard outside with flesh inside and seeds at the center. They grow to be about this big.” He held his hands 40 straums apart.

“Geezkrishna! A punkrim that big could feed a man for five days.” He paused and looked back. “Listen, you don't want to be spouting this stuff too loud. There's some folks here still have the strength to walk. They'd sneak behind you and kill you for a chance to get to that land. Me, well, I barely have the strength left to even keep my head from falling over. Not that it makes much difference anymore.”

“You poor soul, I'm so sorry to hear all of this. I wish there was something I could do.”

The man looked thoughtful for a second. “Well, it's been mighty lonesome. Would you mind telling me some stories about where you lived?”

So just as he had with the people on the ship, he sat with this man for an hour or so talking about the farm, and harvesting the trux. He talked about Kaya and how she always complained about having him as a babysitter. He talked about finding the strange stone-thing and finding himself on the ship.

“Yeah, and this funny ship, were there people on it, like yourself?”

“Sure, but they were all real hungry, they were skinny like you are. They couldn't believe me when I said I was from Nedune.”
“Oh well sure. That makes sense. No one in the world would believe someone as well fed as you could be from this planet.”

“So this is Nedune?!”

“Well of course. Where do you think you are. Man do you got some kinda brain disease or sumethin?”

“No of course not. But the Nedune I left just a few hours ago had big fields of punkrins and trux.

“Good lord, so why would you come here then? Stay where you are and say yer thanks to the powers above every night that yer not starving to death in this place.”

Now he felt more uncomfortable. Well, I just wanted to get away from my parents. They've been fighting over money late-”

He was interrupted by a bellowing laughter from the man followed by a long hacking cough. A tiny rivulet of blood meandered down his chin as he looked up again. “Boy, if it's money you want, just wander around. All the folks still alive are the ones with the money to buy the last of the food. Now they're stuck, cuz guess what?” He laughed again for a long while. “Ya caint eat pierlz 'n rubyz. So now they just litter the ground.”

Now it was Ritem's turn to be shocked. “You mean you've got pierlz and jemz just littering the ground?”

“Boy, didn't you hear what I just told you? All the idiots that sold their food for money found that they couldn't eat their profit an they died.”

“So are you people eating algae like the people on the ship?”

“You kiddin? We put all the algae tanks onto the Faint Hope, every one of us sacrificed our minuscule chance for survival on the chnce that the faint hope might find another place for huemeans to live.” Now he looked more intently. “But you said the people on the ship were skinny like me. So did they all die too?”

Now Ritem wondered to himself. Should he tell the man about what the captain had said? No, he decided to let the fellow die with some spark of faith within his soul. “Well, when I got there, the folks were low on food, but one of the people reported a habitable planet on some kind of scanner. They were about to launch something called a probe. Maybe that's where Huemeans will make a new start.”

“Goddamn lucky stiffs.” he muttered. Soon the man's head lolled and he started snoring. Ritem's heart ached for the man, but it didn't look like there was anything more he could do.

Remembering what the man had said and hoping that he could find something sanguine in the endless sea of desolation, he started wandering around looking for some of the jemz or pierlz. As he walked, there were an overwhelming number of skeletons laying near the decrepit shells of old buildings and lots of four-wheeled metal carts that were burned beyond recognition.

He found one building with half of one wall still intact and peaked inside. There were a couple of skeletons, some broken furniture and a few scraps of metal. In one corner was the remains of a fire pit with scraps of paper laying around. He picked one of them up and his legs almost gave way. It was a 1000 dinar note, and there were dozens of them. He quickly stuffed what he could into his pocket. Geezkrishna, even a single bill like that would pay for a new hourdz. The man had been right, there were riches here beyond his wildest dreams. He moved on and saw another building riddled with holes and with it’s roof collapsed into a pile. Peaking in this place he saw pieces of roof beams like the bones of the people themselves poking into the room. But underneath them in a corner he saw a pile of precious jemz, rubbys, and a few more bills laying haphazardly on the floor. He took what he could and stuffed it into his pockets.

But it didn't take long before the feeling of emptiness looming ever more oppressively over the land began to chip away at his greed.

He glanced up at the sun and decided it wouldn't be safe to be in a place like this after dark. So he took a last look around and prepared to hurry back the way he came.

“Hey! Who are you?” He heard a voice coming from a box next to the building he'd just left. Looking cautiously around the corner he saw a man stand up slowly and with obvious difficulty. The man looked even older then his father did but shorter, and he wore a suit that looked like it had once been expensive. The man pulled himself up to his full height, but had to shift some of his weight to a short metal pole. His sunken eyes peered out through black circles in his skeletal face. His cheeks clung tenaciously to the skull beneath and there was barely a hint of flesh anywhere. But this man still had just a hint of fire in his eyes as he stared intently back.

“I'm talkin to you boy! You stole my stuff. I saw you do it! Don't you dare lie to me!”

At first he didn't know what to make of this character. If what the last person said was true, then money was useless here. Still, his father had taught him morals and he wasn't going to lie to the fellow.

“I'm sorry mister. I didn't think there was anyone who owned this-”

But the man cut through his words like he was wielding a sword. “What's that you got there. What's that in yer hand boy!”

He looked down and realized that he still had the soat stalks. That gave him an idea of how to get out of the situation. “Oh, I found these in a safe. I think it's food. You can have it in exchange.”

The man peered at the stalks in his hand and like the other fellow, his eyes bulged out of his sunken face. “Boy, you may be holding the last piece of edible food on the whole damn planet!” His eyes then narrowed as the cloud passed over his features. “Waaaiiittt a minute. Why would you be offering your last food to me just fer a bunch of those worthless rocks in there?” The man paused in thought for a second. “You must have more of this somewhere. Good lord, you must be the wealthiest kid on the entire planet!”

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